This is Part 4 in a series about relationships by Pastor Andy Woodfield. We are unpacking this letter around the theme of grace relationships – relationships established by God through faith in Christ. Catch the full series at these links:
Part 1: 5 ESSENTIAL MINDSETS FOR GRACE RELATIONSHIPS
Part 2: 4 ESSENTIAL ATTITUDES FOR GRACE RELATIONSHIPS
Part 3: ESSENTIAL INTERVENTIONS FOR GRACE RELATIONSHIPS
Part 4: ESSENTIAL ACCOUNTABILITY FOR GRACE RELATIONSHIPS
Essential Accountability for Grace Relationships
The letter to Philemon is a beautiful portrait of grace relationships. These relationships are established by God through faith in Christ. They are not natural but supernatural relationships forged in the furnace of God’s grace and mercy towards sinners.
Relationships forged by the Lord are not marked by momentary connections but by spiritual connections for time and eternity. From the final five verses of this letter, I want us to consider four things that are essential when it comes to the accountability of grace relationships.
- Godly Expectations of Others (v. 21) Paul writes, “Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.”
It is so easy to have a negative view of others and fail to see them in the light of the spiritual life they have from the Lord. Paul was clear what his expectation of Philemon is. He expected obedience, and he took the time to write to this man and outline his expectation of him. This is in essence his way of holding this man accountable. Paul’s expectation and confidence is that Philemon would obey his direction and forgive and reconcile Onesimus.
While the term obedience sounds out of place in a letter where Paul has gone to great lengths not to make demands, Paul’s appeal is based in love, yet comes with an expectation of compliance. He believes that this man will do far more than he is asking of him.
Love requires Philemon to receive, forgive, restore, and welcome this young man back as more than a slave, even as a brother. Why? Because grace received demands that grace be extended. Paul is saying in effect, “I know that you love God this much, that you will take back Onesimus.”
In the second part of v.21 he concludes, “since I know that you will do even more than what I say.” This is the ground of Paul’s confidence. His knowledge of this man’s over-the-top Christian sacrificial love for others brings him to this conclusion. Only the compulsion of divine grace in the human heart produces an “even more than” ethic within a person.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ [That would be perfect justice, right? Yet Jesus continues] But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:38–45)
Such an orientation in life cannot be demanded. It can only be drawn from the heart that drinks deeply from the fountain of God’s grace. Jesus asked the crowd, “What are you doing more than others?” (Matt. 5:47).
Application Questions: Do others know that your love for God and love for others trumps your own hurts and struggles? Is your character in Christ so real that someone could conclude, as Paul did with Philemon, that you will do the right thing when asked, and more than the right thing?
A second thing essential to the accountability of grace relationships is personal review.
- Personal Review (v. 22) Paul continues, “At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you”.
This gentle directive sends a signal that Paul is planning on gathering firsthand evidence of Philemon’s decisions and actions with regards to Onesimus. Paul is saying, “I want to come and see what you have done, knowing you will do much more than I have requested. I want to see Gods indulgent grace work through you so I can rejoice in the goodness of God”.
Paul is assuming that he will soon be in Colossae. The reason for this expectation is based in Philemon’s righteous prayers. We can only imagine what would be going through the minds of Philemon and the saints of Colossae when they heard that the great Apostle was planning to visit this inconspicuous town on the Lycus valley upon his release from prison. I imagine there would have been a great deal of excitement.
We see from the future passive verb, I will be given to you, that Paul’s longing to be with them is grounded in the gracious providences of God. Paul is not saying, “I’m going to make this happen”, but rather, “I am looking to God to make this happen”. Like any farmer, he wanted to inspect the fruit of his labors and give glory to God for the harvest that was growing.
Application Question: As you think of relationships that have been falling short of your expectations, how can you add personal review to expectation without being overbearing or heavy-handed?
A third reality essential to the accountability of grace relationships is living in a vibrant community.
- Vibrant Community (vv. 23-24) Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers.
As Paul closes out this letter, he typically focuses on Christian community. The church is made up of relationships, a body of people who are interdependent on each other. There is a sharing and care expressed to each other as we seek to live our lives for Jesus Christ. We need, as one man said, “Riveting Relationships”. That is, relationships where people are not a bother to you but a blessing. The blessing is not found in anonymity but in accountability.
This list of Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke are all party to the content of this personal letter. Paul is no lone ranger but sees all these men as fellow workers.
These names remind us that the gospel comes to us through the fabric of grace relationships where loyalty, sacrificial service, and plain hard work marked the pathway towards glory. Working as a team can be trying at times, but the rewards through the synergy of different giftings is incredible and reflective of the oneness and diversity of God.
Application Question: Are you making yourself accountable in ministry? Do you see the value of working with others? Who has God given you to share side-by-side within the sphere of your ministry? Do you recognize them and treat them as part of the team?
The final reality essential to the accountability of grace relationships is knowing the source of their existence.
- Divine Resources (v. 25) The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
It is in this final verse that we see Paul extending to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus the only thing worth extending to others, and that is God’s grace. In fact, Paul never wrote a letter where he didn’t extend such a desire for his readers. Paul longed that the believers experience the fullness of grace in their lives.
Jesus Christ is the source and sustenance of all grace relationships. They begin and end with Him. John 1:16 reminds us that “of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.”
Even the most difficult of relationships, when wrapped in grace, can honor God….
Application Question: I trust that, if nothing else, our study of this tender, appealing and gracious letter, has caused you to consider what kind of relationships you are building, and has given you some very practical ways to grow relationships with others that set God’s grace on display.
In conclusion this is a letter about remarkable forgiveness and reconciliation between master and slave. This healing grace is what the body of Christ can not only experience from God, but also what we can express one to the other. In so doing we become a witness to the world of the love of Christ, that we are His disciples.
Recently America witnessed the wonder of grace relationships by Brantz Jean, the brother of Botham Jean, who was shot in his home by policewoman Amber Guyger. Guyger thought she had entered her own home and, on seeing Jean, thought he was an intruder and so shot him. Brantz Jean took the stand after she was sentenced to 10 years in prison and said to Amber,
“If you truly are sorry, I know – I speak for myself, I forgive you.”
“I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.”
“I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want for you. “
“I love you just like anyone else, and I’m not going to hope you rot and die.”
“I personally want the best for you. I wasn’t going to say this in front of my family.”
“Give your life to Christ. I think giving your life to Christ is the best thing Botham would want for you.”
He then asked the Judge if he could give her a hug, and he was granted permission. The courthouse was stunned as Guyger ran and threw herself upon Brantz Jean and wept, sobbing uncontrollably.
Brantzs’ Mother was later seen going and talking to Amber, sharing Scriptures with her, and giving her a copy of her own Bible.
This is what grace relationships look like. This is the glory of Christ who died to set us free from the chains of our own selfishness and pride. When man is unable to forgive in his own strength, grace powers through these bodies of dust and brings glory to Christ.